JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) -A game of high-paced chess appears to be afoot in Southeast Asia, as the United States and its allies compete with China in shoring support among Asean states for the geopolitical rivalry, in the midst of a heated Covid-19 vaccine race that has consumed the region and the wider global community.
Strategies are being carried out and the pieces all set up on the board, with a lot of activity focused around Indonesia that would inevitably test the limits of its free and active foreign policy.
On Oct 9-10, Indonesia dispatched its point man for China in the Cabinet, Luhut Pandjaitan, to meet Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi before his five-country tour of Southeast Asia, seeking assurances for an earlier promise by Beijing to help turn the country into an eventual hub for Covid-19 vaccine production.
The following weekend, it was Prabowo Subianto's turn to head to Washington to fulfill an invitation to meet his US counterpart, Defence Secretary Mark Esper, in what observers view as redemption for a former military general with a controversial human rights track record - one that the Donald Trump administration looks eager to sweep under the rug ahead of a critically important Nov 3 election.
Just last week, Yoshihide Suga, the new leader of major US ally Japan, made his maiden trip as prime minister to Vietnam and Indonesia, in a clear effort to push for closer ties with Asean in defense and maritime security, while arguing that this Indo-Pacific salvo would not result in a Nato-like security alliance.
Suga's comment was a thinly veiled response to China's Wang, who during his stopover in Malaysia took issue with an Indo-Pacific order that looks like it was increasingly being driven by the "Quad" comprising Japan, India, Australia and the US.
This coming week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo makes a tour of duty through what looks to be the "Indo" part of the Indo-Pacific region, starting in Quad member India and ending in Asean's de facto leader Indonesia.
Having recently installed the State Department's point man on China and North Korea as US ambassador, there would be little surprise if Pompeo's visit is predicated on the Quad angle of the Indo-Pacific.
Pompeo looks set to promote his personal project to align the US' religious conservatism with foreign policy allies. It had already coaxed countries like Indonesia to cosign a contentious antiabortion convention in Geneva, Switzerland last week.
There is always some cause for alarm if foreign partners try to appeal to Indonesia's conservative bent.
As regional security experts can attest, the free and open Indo-Pacific order is a re-imagining of the Asia-Pacific regionalism that looks to take the spotlight away from China's rising influence.
For its part, Indonesia has looked to recontextualise the Indo-Pacific order as one led by Asean - one that is all-inclusive and thus agreeable to China.
If this version of the Indo-Pacific wants to remain relevant, then Indonesia must not lose sight of the game at hand, especially as other regional powers are thinking 10 steps ahead.
The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.